Video installations, the screening of films as visual works of art and exhibitions of sound art are all part and parcel of contemporary showcases of contemporary art. British artist Malcolm Le Grice (b. 1940) has been involved right from the beginning in the process of conceptualising the moving image as a form of visual art in galleries, museums and art schools. Le Grice’s works, which combine conceptual art with film and experimental music, were initially displayed in grassroots galleries and intimate screenings staged by enthusiasts in the Swinging London. Since then, they have been exhibited all over the art world from Documenta in Kassel, to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and from the Louvre to Tate Modern.
Malcolm Le Grice started his career as a painter, and moved on to work with film in the mid-1960s. His early influences came not from cinema, but from other arts. ” I had no desire to make films for the cinema - even Godard looked old hat compared to what I understood as radical art - Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Ornette Coleman, John Cage. I started to make films in the same way I approached painting or had approached improvisational music.”, Le Grice has said. He created most of his early film works at the London Filmmakers Coop, where the atmosphere was full of enthusiasm as well as socially conscious. The films created at the Coop were a new kind of “structuralist-materialist” cinema, which would rescue the art of film-making from Hollywood brainwashing and spectator underestimation. What was essential in this idealistic approach was the foregrounding of cinematic structures and an awareness of the illusory nature of the film apparatus. The Coop worked together with similarly minded co-operatives in Central Europe, collectively contesting the American tradition of underground cinema. The American tradition was regarded as romantically individualistic, while the European filmmakers emphasised the power of collectivity and open sharing of influences between filmmakers.
One simple and practical merit of the London Filmmakers Coop was the fact that it was a place where any enthusiastic devotee could create films in an affordable way. It was in this spirit of spontaneity and independence that visual artists such as Roger Hammond, Fred Drummond, John Smith and Chris Welsby started making films. The primary theorists who voiced the radical thoughts shared by the members of the Coop were Le Grice and Peter Gidal, a neomarxist filmmaker known for his austere, even sterile short films. ”Peter Gidal and I tried to find a political argument related to the form of our works. I talked a lot about politics and perception, or the politics of perception and I was opposed to conventional narrative cinema because of its reactionary place in the dream culture and its manipulative effect on people,” Le Grice reminisced last winter in an interview published in the catalogue of the X-Screen exhibition of expanded cinema at the Vienna Museum of Modern Art. Le Grice’s and Gidal’s relationship with the art world was critical as well: “We wanted to be in the philosophical context of art, we wanted to show in art places, because we were doing multi projections and installations and what we now call expanded cinema. But actually the works we did was anti-commodity. And so in some senses we made it impossible for the re-incorporation into the art world”, Le Grice continues in the same interview by Maxa Zoller.
Le Grice developed and refined his own method of expression in several projects involving moving image. He experimented with up to six projectors used simultaneously and created film loop installations, performances with moving projectors and shadow performances. “There were not more than 20 really experimental film works between 1915 and 1932. The fingers of two hands will give you all the filmmakers and four hands would probably count all the works. In film there were still a lot of things to be done. Where ever you went you would be hitting something new. Painting and sculpture were sealed up in a sense. They were constantly trying to innovate in painting and sculpture. We did not have that. (...) It was an open territory, which does not happen in contemporary culture, it is a slightly different situation now. Film has also become in a sense closed.”
Le Grice has always worked without a written script, trusting his instincts. What are typical of his early works are temporal structures based on hypnotic repetition of both sound and image, and loops. He considers the “imperfect” form of his works – the way they can live on and change from year to year, from one screening to another – one of their essential features. His most famous multi-projection film Berlin Horse (1970) was based entirely on a novel but simple idea of a repeating, subtly changing film loop. The soundtrack – created by Brian Eno, young and unknown at the time – was also implemented using a tape loop. As with any given film, it is nearly impossible to summarise Berlin Horse by describing its content: a horse running out of a burning stable, again and again. The film unfurls in a whirlwind of expressionistic, flaming images. According to the director, Berlin Horse examines ”how the eye works and how the minds builds up a perceptual rhythmic structure”.
Le Grice created many of his early works using the cheapest film stocks available – such as the high-contrast East German Orwo – in order to attain their extraordinary, rugged “coop-look”. The black and white Yes No Maybe Maybe Not (1967) is a breathtakingly beautiful short film, where images of the rhythm of ocean waves alternate with images of the massive Battersea power station: film poetry in its purest form. The editing rhythm of the film is formed by the rhythm of speaking aloud its title. After Lumiere - l’arrouser arrosé (1974) was one of Le Grice’s first experiments with the possibilities of “figurative” cinema. It was followed by a period “influenced by semiology, deconstruction feminism and a feeling that it might be possible to take up narrative as a problematic issue within film language itself ”, as Le Grice has written about the most theoretical phase of his career. Between 1977 and 1981 he made three narrative feature films (Blackbird Descending, Emily and Finnegans Chin), which drove him into an artistic cul-de-sac and crisis.
In 1984 Le Grice went back to basics: simple, improvised experiments with moving image and sound, but now using video and computers instead of film. He started creating small video pieces, “poems” or “songs” as he describes them himself. Le Grice’s method of making personal works of art is a unique one: he shoots large amounts of footage on video tapes, which he then stores for a time long enough for them to start to feel like someone else’s raw footage. “For Jonas Mekas, the diary is a record - a form of ‘nostalgic’ access to the places, times and people he has filmed. My images only begin to interest me when they break with their origin and become ‘latent’, take on a mystery as something where the meaning has become unknown to me and is not contained within what I might recall of the moment of recording.”
Le Grice started exploring the possibilities of interactive art at a very early stage, but is sceptical regarding its possibilities today: “I have not made any fully interactive works. In the same way in which I postponed working with computers until a certain stage in the technology, I do not expect to take up interactive forms until they can satisfy the level of sequence control, immersiveness, scale, pace and symbolic richness of the film or video presentation. This may mean I shall never take this form up.”
Le Grice is somewhat distressed by the fact that even though there is a lot of interest for his films internationally, it is almost exclusively for the early works he created during the 1960s. Chances for presenting the later works are few and far between. His old classics are also often introduced for audiences from other visual arts, which Le Grice finds satisfying but not entirely unproblematic: “The big problem about showing experimental film in the art gallery is that it is difficult to capture the gallery audience for a specific period of time. And we still do not have a good institutional framework for the temporal cinematic aspect. The galleries are not doing that very well, they are turning film into a momentary spectacle. I am now even making installations of Berlin Horse. But within an installation framework, the chances that someone is watching the work from beginning to end is a very small one.”
Avanto will screen a large cross-section of Le Grice’s output introduced by the artist himself. His early films and experimental videos will be screened in Orion, while the Kiasma Theatre will host Cyclops’ Cycle (2004), his new psychedelic fantasy for three video projectors.
Le Grice has also distinguished himself as a theorist by authoring two excellent books on experimental cinema. Abstract Film and Beyond (Studio Vista/MIT, 1977) is a substantial and original survey of the abstract avant-garde, while Experimental Cinema in the Digital Age (BFI Publications, 2001) is a collection of his previously published essays. During the festival Le Grice will give a lecture on the topic outlined by the title of his second book. He will also participate in a discussion hosted by Kiasma on the relationships between artists and society and between radical forms and radical political content. Other participants in the discussion include Alec Empire, Minna Långström, Mattin and Mark Boswell.
Malcolm Le Grice 1
Yes No Maybe Maybe Not (1967) 7’, double projection
Reign of the Vampire (1970) 12’
Newport (1972) 15’
After Lumiere - l’arroseur arrosé (1974) 12’
Berlin Horse (1970) 9’, dual projection
Warsaw Window (1994) 2’
Cidre Bouche (1994) 2’
For the Benefit of Mr K (1995) 1’
Balcony Water Colour (1994) 3’
Seeing the Future (1994) 1’
Weir (1993) 2’
Prelude (1993) 2’
Digital Aberration (2004) 3’
In Orion on Friday, November 19th at 17.00; screened again on Saturday, November 20th at 17.00. Screenings introduced by Malcolm Le Grice.
Malcolm Le Grice 2
Little Dog For Roger (1967) 12’
Threshold (1972) 17’, double projection
Digital Still Life (1984-86) 8’
Like a Fox (with Gill Eatherlyn, 1988) 6’
Rock Wave (1988) 8’
Juniper and the Myths of Origin (1988) 7’
Veritas (1988) 6’
Beware (1988) 5’
Et in Arcadia Ego (1988) 8’
In Orion on Saturday, November 20th at 19.00; screened again on Sunday, November 21st at 20.00. Screenings introduced by Malcolm Le Grice.
(2004) 60’, triple projection
In the Kiasma Theatre on Sunday, November 20th at 12.30. Screening introduced by Malcolm Le Grice.
Experimental Cinema in the Digital Age in Orion on Friday, November 19th at 14.30. The lecture is a part of a series of lectures on film technology organised by The Finnish Film Archive and The Film Society of Helsinki University.
A panel discussion on art and politics in Kiasma on Saturday, November 20th at 11.00.